Code of the treehopper

5 minutes

King of Saxony: otherworldly calls

4 minutes

How to make a rainbow

16 minutes

Daybreak express

5 minutes

I signed the petition

11 minutes

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Coded vibrations and signal jamming – the secret language of the treehoppers

Treehoppers, a large family of insects found around the globe, live on plant branches, sucking nutrients from sap and frequently blending in with their surrounding to avoid the attention of predators. At first glance, the creatures appear rather boring as they stay relatively still and quiet much of the time, but scientists are learning that there’s much more to them than first meets the eye – or ear. By vibrating their torsos while grasping branches, treehoppers dispatch their own complex version of Morse code to warn of nearby predators, woo mates and even disrupt the signals of rivals. And treehoppers are hardly anomalous: tens of thousands of species of insects communicate using similar vibrations, meaning that there’s an entire universe of hidden animal communications we’re just beginning to understand. In this instalment of bioGraphic’s Invisible Nature series, the animator and filmmaker Flora Lichtman puts her inimitable style to evocative use, recreating the world of treehoppers with stunning tiny creations playfully animated.

Director: Flora Lichtman

Producer: Annette Heist

Websites: bioGraphic, Sweet Fern Productions

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This bird-of-paradise in New Guinea sounds like something from another planet

Endemic to the mountain forests of New Guinea, the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise (Pteridophora alberti) is best-known for the flamboyant, mate-attracting efforts of its males. The bird’s courtship displays – which often double as a means of keeping competitors at a comfortable distance – make use of bright yellow breast feathers, wildly waving head plumes and peppy dance manoeuvres capped off with an exceptionally outsized, almost otherworldly bit of squawking. This video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a rare glimpse into the world of this idiosyncratic little bird, which has proven notoriously difficult to photograph in its rugged natural habitat.

Director: Tim Laman

Websites: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of Paradise Project

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‘I live with a girl papa!’ Two years in the life of Alaizah and her trans mother Jade

How to Make a Rainbow is a glimpse into the life of a young girl, Alaizah, and her single mother, Jade, during two especially challenging years. Together, they face the challenges of Jade’s transition from male to female – including new pronouns, unsympathetic family members, stretches of homelessness and top surgery – with high spirits, love and honesty. Ryan Maxey, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and Jade’s longtime friend, traces the nuances and contours of the duo’s relationship with skill and affection, offering a gentle and intimate rendering of family, and a tribute to the openheartedness of children.

Director: Ryan Maxey

Producer: Jade Phoenix Martinez

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D A Pennebaker transformed documentary filmmaking. This is his first film

The US filmmaker D A Pennebaker – a pioneer of the documentary form – died on 1 August 2019 at the age of 94. He is perhaps best-known for his feature films Don’t Look Back (1967), a remarkable portrait of Bob Dylan while on a concert tour near the height of his fame, and The War Room (1993), which followed Bill Clinton’s run and eventual surprise victory in the 1992 US presidential election. Coming of age at a time when portable 16mm cameras with the ability to record sync sound on the fly allowed filmmakers newfound levels of freedom, Pennebaker was one of the first US documentarians to use the tools and aesthetics of cinéma vérité (or direct cinema), which emphasised recording reality with authenticity and representing stories truthfully.

With its frenetic pace, early morning hues, avant-garde touches, and playful use of shapes and patterns, Pennebaker’s first short, Daybreak Express (1953), made for a precocious debut. The sounds of an eponymous Duke Ellington composition form the film’s clattering backbone, as Pennebaker crafts an urban mosaic from Manhattan’s soon-to-be demolished Third Avenue elevated train line. While more experimental than much of the work he would be celebrated for later, Pennebaker’s career-long knack for kinetic editing, adventurous storytelling and skilfully marrying music and images still permeates nearly every frame. Today the impressionistic short plays not only as an ode to the dizzying dance of New York City transit, but the very power and potential of the documentary form itself.

Director: DA Pennebaker

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Two Palestinian friends debate the merits of boycotting a Radiohead gig in Israel

The Palestinian filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel was born in Dubai, raised in the Ein el-Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon, studied at the National Film and Television School in the UK, and now lives in Denmark. His debut feature documentary, A World Not Ours (2012), is a personal, melancholic and humorous exploration of his family’s experience of living as permanent refugees across three generations, and received widespread critical acclaim upon its release. 

His most recent film, the short documentary I Signed the Petition, takes a different approach to questions of Palestinian identity. From his apartment in Berlin one morning, the filmmaker calls his friend Faris in London, waking him up with an anguished question: did Fleifel make a mistake by signing a petition urging the UK rock band Radiohead to cancel their performance in Tel Aviv in July 2018? While Fleifel supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, he worries that adding his name to the Radiohead petition might bring unwanted attention from the Israeli government. As the phonecall progresses, the conversation moves beyond the potential consequences of signing, and the two friends grapple with the political and personal meanings of being Palestinian, the corrosive effects of intergenerational powerlessness, and the tangled contradictions of market morality. A complex account of how individuals make their own politics, Fleifel’s short was a favourite on the 2018 film festival circuit, winning honours at Visions du Réel, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and the Sarajevo Film Festival, among others.

Director: Mahdi Fleifel

Producer: Patrick Campbell

Website: Nakba FilmWorks

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Coded vibrations and signal jamming – the secret language of the treehoppers

Treehoppers, a large family of insects found around the globe, live on plant branches, sucking nutrients from sap and frequently blending in with their surrounding to avoid the attention of predators. At first glance, the creatures appear rather boring as they stay relatively still and quiet much of the time, but scientists are learning that there’s much more to them than first meets the eye – or ear. By vibrating their torsos while grasping branches, treehoppers dispatch their own complex version of Morse code to warn of nearby predators, woo mates and even disrupt the signals of rivals. And treehoppers are hardly anomalous: tens of thousands of species of insects communicate using similar vibrations, meaning that there’s an entire universe of hidden animal communications we’re just beginning to understand. In this instalment of bioGraphic’s Invisible Nature series, the animator and filmmaker Flora Lichtman puts her inimitable style to evocative use, recreating the world of treehoppers with stunning tiny creations playfully animated.

Director: Flora Lichtman

Producer: Annette Heist

Websites: bioGraphic, Sweet Fern Productions

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Essay/
Thinkers and theories
The American Aristotle

Charles Sanders Peirce was a brilliant philosopher, mathematician and scientist. His polymathic work should be better known

Daniel Everett

Essay/
The future
The end of us

Only since the Enlightenment have we been able to imagine humans going extinct. Is it a sign of our maturity as a species?

Thomas Moynihan